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Are We All Living in a Bubble?

No, the situation is actually much worse.

Key points

  • A popular idea about political polarization is that people in different camps live in separate bubbles. Evidence suggests this isn't the case.
  • Social groups are divided by "inverting filters," which invert the truth value of information that comes through from other groups.
  • Studies have shown that confronting members of a social group with information that contradicts their beliefs actually strengthens these beliefs.

One often-repeated line about political polarization is that both sides live in some kind of bubble. If I am a Democrat, I will only interact with other Democrats, only read left-leaning papers and websites, and have no contact with any Republicans or right-leaning media. And the same can be said on a smaller scale: Devotees of the paleo diet live in a bubble and the Atkins fans live in another one. All this is empirically false, however. We don’t live in a bubble. In fact, we are constantly exposed to the views of the opposite camp. Our society is not fragmented in that sense.

Society is fragmented in a much more dangerous way. If it were the case that different parts of the society just lived in their own bubbles, it would be very easy to pop these bubbles by exposing people to the views of other bubbles. But society works in a much more complicated way.

If I am really into the paleo diet, it is not that I have never heard of, say, the Atkins diet. I surely have. But I routinely dismiss everything that an Atkins diet devotee could possibly say to me. Whatever they say must be wrong, given that it is the Atkins diet people who say it. So these social groups are not divided by watertight isolating walls. They are divided by what I call "inverting filters." So the issue is not that information does not come in from outside the bubble. It is that when it does come in, its truth value is inverted.

Members of one social group often take the fact that a piece of information came out of a rival social group to be evidence that it is false. So if they say X, this is a reason for us to believe non-X. And vice versa. Again, not all social groups work this way, but many of them do, and such inverting filters are becoming more and more widespread, with the increase of the political alignment of most social groups. You probably know some right-wing conservatives who take the fact that a news report is on CNN to be evidence for its falsity. Ditto for some left-wing liberals who have the same attitude towards Fox News.

How Inverting Filters Help Strengthen Held Beliefs

It is these inverting filters that make it so difficult to do anything against polarisation. If society consisted of isolated bubbles, things would be easy. Confronting members of a bubble with information that contradicts their received wisdom would do the trick. But the inverting filters are much more advanced and sophisticated defense mechanisms. If we confront members of a social group with information that contradicts the canon of this group, this will not count as evidence against this canon, but, paradoxically, it will strengthen this canon. The contradicting information comes from outside the social group, so it must come from a source that can’t be trusted. So the opposite of what it says must be true.

These inverting filters explain the impressive set of empirical findings about how conflicting information with our most deeply held beliefs can strengthen these beliefs. The most famous of these experiments was about religion. Half the subjects believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The other half did not believe this. Both groups then had to read an article that, the experimenters told the subjects, was denied publication in the New York Times because it would interfere with people’s religious beliefs. The article said that recently, archeologists found a letter written by the authors of the New Testament that said, among other things, that “I am sure we were justified in stealing away his body and claiming that he rose from the dead. For, although his death clearly proves he was not the Son of God as we had hoped, if we did not claim that he was, both his great teaching and our lives as his disciples would be wasted!” The article says that the authenticity of the letter was proven by radiocarbon dating and then concludes that it has been “conclusively proved that the major writings in what is today called the New Testament are fraudulent.”

Those subjects who went into the experiment not believing that Jesus was the Son of God continued to think so. The group of subjects who believed that Jesus was the Son of God before the experiment continued to have this belief. But the surprising result was that they had higher confidence in this belief than they had before reading the article. So what was presented as rock-solid evidence that Jesus was not the Son of God made their belief to the contrary stronger. And this effect is not specific to religion. Similar results were reported about beliefs in gun control, affirmative action and even the health benefits of coffee. Polarisation can’t be busted with evidence. Evidence will often just make it stronger.

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